Susan Mustard Gilliland, Marita and Me

Susan Mustard Gilliland, 1960

As an experienced prison volunteer, I asked the Chaplain to give me a hard assignment. Chaplain R. called, “Susan, I have just the one for you. Her name is Marita. She’s angry, a fighter and always in trouble. She has a lengthy list of disciplinary reports which include insubordination, fighting, disobeying orders, contraband, misusing meds, disruptive behavior, and disrespect toward officers.” Perfect! I believed I could connect, face to face, with anyone. Soon, I met with Marita.

We met in a private room. Well, nothing is ever really private in a prison, but no one could hear our conversation. I asked Marita to tell me her story. She said her brother and one-like-a-brother had been shot and killed. Their deaths were recent and a week apart. She dissolved into tears as she talked about how much she loved her grandmother and brothers. Their deaths had devastated her, and she worried about her grandmother.  Her mother was incarcerated in another state and her church-going father had another family. She had seen much violence in her young life (20’s) and fighting in the streets was survival for her.

In high school she was identified as “one from the inner-city with potential” and awarded a Kauffman Scholarship that would assist her to attend college. She loved to write and anticipated study in journalism. However, she detoured into shoplifting. She was good at it. Marita loved “shopping and giving gifts” to her many nieces and nephews. Eventually, that ended with an arrest, conviction and incarceration.

We continued to meet weekly, and then she had another fight. Very common in I Cell House. It is overcrowded, noisy, and there is no privacy ever for the most violent and unstable offenders. She was sent to the “hole” for 90 days. We continued to meet weekly. Only this time, I sat outside her cell and we looked and talked to one another through the slot for passing meals. At times I sat on the floor. Other times the officer would bring me an old plastic chair. Marita had a Bible and not much else. We read Job, Jonah and Ruth. Week by week we extracted “life lessons” from the Old Testament. She was amazed to find stories similar to her own. We both loved our times together and looked forward to the next one.

Eventually, Marita got out of segregation, served her sentence and was released. She returned to her neighborhood, found life as challenging as before, and a job hard to come by. I met her in Kansas City for lunch a couple of times, and we were so happy to see each other again. Now I’ve lost track of her. She may still have my phone number, but hers apparently has changed. I hope that she will contact me someday. According to the Department of Corrections website, she is not in prison. I’m happy about that!

Editor’s Note: Susan attended elementary and middle school with many Class of 1960 members. Her family moved, however, and she graduated from Southeast in 1960. She has moved back to Wichita and keeps in touch with friends from our class.

See also Susan Mustard Gilliland, “Going Home Again.”

6 Comments
  1. glenna park 2 months ago

    Susan, I ran an art studio at Bexar County Jail for two years in San Antonio. The job was listed as a teaching position in adult education. I soon learned that the residents had their own agenda for art and would put up with my ideas as long I gave them freedom to make the art they wanted for most of the hour of class. I spent about 10 minutes teaching and the other 50 minutes helping them on their projects. The informal studio atmosphere gave the students a chance to talk and right away they wanted to talk about their situations. It was always astonishing to hear their stories about their family situations and the mistakes they made. Mostly the lives were ravaged from poverty, abuse, and ignorance. The kind of work you do is critical to give incarcerated any hope of changing their lives at all. There are never enough people to give this time to prisoners. I appreciate your efforts and respect your recognition of the need.

    • Susan Mustard Gilliland 2 months ago

      Thanks, Glenna. How I can relate to your experience! I co-facilitated a “Growing through Loss” group at the women’s prison for five years. Each one had an opportunity to tell her story of betrayal, abuse, and pain – the likes of which I could not imagine. At the end of 2015, I came apart emotionally. I could not listen to another story! I had my own story that I needed to uncover. Since then, I’ve been working on that.

      • glenna park 2 months ago

        Susan, I lasted at the jail for only two years. First of all, it is not normal to put people in cages and it does bother one to witness that. Also some of the really sad stories about incarceration was of young people who rapidly were cycling into Texas’ three-times-and-you-get-LIFE! When I arrived at the jail for class, the inmates would yet their hello’s to me on the street. It was amusing. When I left, I had lots of “thank you” yelling, but by then I was in tears and cried all the way home.

  2. Janice Bailey 2 months ago

    Susan, I’m glad to hear you are in Wichita. I remember you from Robinson. We didn’t live far from each other. I hope you have luck uncovering your own story and being better off for doing so. I find I am still uncovering parts of my story. When I come to a new “light bulb” moment, I feel more whole.

    • Susan Mustard Gilliland 2 months ago

      Yes, Janice, when I uncover another piece I realize my life does fit together in a way that makes sense. Apparently it’s a lifelong journey. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Calvin Ross 2 months ago

    Susan,
    Thanks for posting your experience as a correctional volunteer with inmates. Your comments about Marita brought to mind my experience with Moses.
    I was a member of the Pittsburgh (PA) Experiment, a program where a person from the community was paired with an inmate at the Western PA Correctional Institution. I was paired with Moses who was from Philadelphia. The idea was to get to know the inmate in order to provide appropriate support, especially whenever the inmate re-entered society.
    Moses and I built a friendship over 2-3 years. I visited him in prison. Whenever he got an outside pass, he and I spent time together, including lunches in downtown Pittsburgh and meals at our home.
    Unfortunately, I lost track of Moses shortly after he was released. I’m not certain what happened or where he went—maybe back to Philly. Sounds like a bit of a parallel with your friendship with Marita.

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